Blair admits he must win back voters' trust

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Tony Blair tried to rekindle his jaded relationship with the British people yesterday, admitting the electorate had grown tired of his "I know best" image. In a speech which will set the tone for the imminent general election campaign, Mr Blair acknowledged he was seen as remote and even arrogant, but claimed he was now "older and a little wiser".

Tony Blair tried to rekindle his jaded relationship with the British people yesterday, admitting the electorate had grown tired of his "I know best" image. In a speech which will set the tone for the imminent general election campaign, Mr Blair acknowledged he was seen as remote and even arrogant, but claimed he was now "older and a little wiser".

In an acknowledgement that many voters had become disillusioned with his style of government, the Prime Minister said: "I understand why some people are angry, not just over Iraq but many of the difficult decisions we have made, and, as ever, a lot of it is about me. For a political leader, 'doing the right thing' in reality is only ever 'doing what I think is the right thing'. And if you're not careful, 'doing the right thing' becomes 'I know best'."

The 45-minute speech, to Labour delegates at the party's spring conference in Gateshead, made a personal appeal to the wider electorate which voted him into No 10 on a wave of popular support eight years ago. He said: "Now you, the British people, have to sit down and decide whether you want the relationship to continue."

Portraying the Conservative leader Michael Howard as right-wing and old-school, he warned that a protest vote for the Liberal Democrats could allow a revival of the Tory party's electoral fortunes. Mr Blair has begun a hectic round of campaigning ­ despite claiming he still does not know the date of the general election, which is widely believed to be pencilled in for 5 May.

Labour plans an event related to its six election pledges on health, education, crime, immigration, child care and the economy every day this week, with Mr Blair featuring prominently on the airwaves. Party strategists are determined to combat the image of Mr Blair as aloof and disconnected by putting the Prime Minister and senior party colleagues in direct touch with voters.

Using personal anecdotes, designed to reinforce the impression that he is in touch with the electorate, the Prime Minister said that he had learnt that trying to be "all things to all people never lasts for long". Likening his premiership to the stages of married life, Mr Blair said: "When I first became leader of the Labour Party, everywhere I went I could feel the warmth growing, the expectations rising.

"Then came the euphoria surrounding our victory. I remember saying at the time that it was all a bit unreal, because people would expect miracles. We have delivered a lot, but no miracles. Politicians don't deliver miracles, and life is not about euphoric moments."

The Prime Minister has seen his popularity ratings plummet since his "euphoric moment" of landslide victory in the 1997 general election. After just four months in office, his popularity was overtaking that of the Government, with a Mori poll finding 75 per cent satisfied with him, considerably more than the 57 per cent who professed themselves happy with the Government as a whole.

He continued to be seen in a positive light as he navigated his way through his first term. But doubts grew in the year 2000 ­ at one point the number of people unsatisfied with him exceeded those who were satisfied. But he recovered and led the Labour Party to a second term in May 2001. Four months later, 67 per cent declared themselves satisfied with his governance. But since then, the war in Iraq and ministerial scandals have taken their toll. In the past two years he has seldom managed to retain the satisfaction of more than a third of the people, and last month, just 33 per cent of those polled by Mori were happy with his performance.

Mr Blair tried yesterday to reconnect with Labour's rank and file, many of whom vehemently opposed the war in Iraq, saying: "I'm back, and it feels good ... back with the Labour Party that has given me the honour of leadership, first of the party and then more important, of course, of the country."

He insisted he had "never forgotten the top line of my job spec" despite being accused of ignoring domestic issues during a parliament dominated by the aftermath of 11 September.

In a conference dominated by a recurring rallying call to try to ensure a high turnout, which Labour feels it can turn to its advantage, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, told activists: "5 May is the focus for elections, the county council elections of course. But if anything else comes along on that date we are ready for it."

The party is planning a blitz on wavering supporters, contacting people who voted Labour in 1997 and 2001 up to seven times in the run-up to polling day. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, and Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, were photographed manning telephones to "cold call" voters at the weekend.

Liam Fox, Tory co-chairman, dismissed the speech. He said: "After eight years in government and just weeks before the election, today we heard more of the same from Tony Blair. He wants people to believe he now has the answers to the problems Britain faces but people know it's just more talk. Most people think Britain is heading in the wrong direction; they feel let down and forgotten by Mr Blair."

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